The last time Neil Young performed a solo arena show in Chicago, five years ago, many concertgoers seemed to have come expecting the greatest hits.
Instead, the long-running singer and songwriter delivered a piece of musical theater, performing his ambitious rock opera "Greendale" in its entirety before the album had even been released, and disappointing all but the most devoted fans willing to indulge any detour this dedicated contrarian might take.
On Tuesday, the 63-year-old artist returned to the Allstate Arena and performed for a much smaller crowd, with half the venue empty and curtained off. Whether people were deterred by their last Young arena experience, fears of a mellow acoustic evening a la the Jonathan Demme concert film "Heart of Gold" (2006) or a top ticket price of $250 was unclear. But guess what?
This time Young and his Electric Band--featuring longtime accompanists guitarist Ben Keith, bassist Rick Rosas, drummer Chad Cromwell and backing vocalists Anthony Crawford and Pegi Young (the star's wife)--essentially delivered a fan's dream set list, veering from some of his most beloved take-no-prisoners barn-burners ("Hey Hey, My My," "Cowgirl in the Sand," "Cinnamon Girl") to some of his most poignant moments of quiet introspection ("The Needle and the Damage Done").
And, thanks to both the passion of the performances (I've never seen Young deliver more fiery guitar outside of his legendary garage band Crazy Horse) and his refusal ever to solely pander to expectations (the more than two-hour show also included a hefty chunk of still-unrecorded new material), it never seemed a bit like nostalgia or witnessing anything other than a musician still at the peak of his creative powers.
Of the new tunes, "Spirit Road" was a country-rock stomper that segued perfectly from the venerable "Powderfinger"; "Sea Change" was a catchy, rousing sing-along anthem and the acoustic "Light a Candle" had all the earmark's of becoming one of Young's unrepentant-old-hippie-optimist classics.
"Instead of cursing in the darkness/Light a candle for where we're goin'," Young sang. "There's something ahead/Worth fighting for."
As for the other older nuggets, the always entrancing "Cortez the Killer" found Young stretching out for the night's most elegiac guitar work, while "Oh, Lonesome Me" and "Old Man" provided two more of the most gentle and beautiful moments.
Then there was a lovely rendition of "Unknown Legend" which proved that even though his director friend Demme used it to power one of the most memorable film scenes of 2008--when TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe delivers an a cappella version as his vows in "Rachel Getting Married"--Young still fully owns the song.
Opening the show were Everest, undistinguished garage rockers who aped Built to Spill aping Neil Young, and New Orleans treasure Dr. John, who sadly delivered more of a rote tourist set than the hardcore voodoo/swampy mojo that he can conjure when he's really on.
The latter subbed in this market for alt-country heroes Wilco, which opened most other dates on the tour, but opted out of this one, depriving their hometown of what would have been a double bill for the ages.